Monday, October 12, 2009

Oleanna (The SOB Review)

Oleanna (The SOB Review) – John Golden Theatre, New York, New York

***1/2 (out of ****)

Temperature flares. Blood boils. High-voltage emotions not easily overcome. Whew!

And that’s just ... me.

After taking in the outstanding current Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna (“revival” is a bit of a misnomer given that this is the first time the playwright’s explosively-charged drama about sexual exploitation has physically graced a Great White Way stage), I was thankful and relieved for the talkback session immediately following my preview performance of this impressively spent powder keg.

Thankful because after witnessing the tightly-wound precision in which Doug Hughes exactingly directs Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in this 75-minute two-hander, I couldn't help but think, “Certainly the prism through which I'm viewing this ‘he said-she said’ case in such a clear-cut manner just has to have been shared by every other audience member regardless of gender.”

In Oleanna, the powerful Pullman portrays John, a married college professor on the cusp of attaining tenure. He's confronted in the second act by his somewhat dim, yet prepossessing student Carol (Stiles, in an initially stilted, yet ultimately chilling Broadway debut). She's claiming sexual harassment after the first act's discussion between the two over a poor grade he gave her -- a private discussion that transpired behind closed doors.

As for being relieved, well that's just because during my particular talkback, virtually everyone providing their opinions, female and male alike, seemed to be on exactly same page as I. There was no equivocation on anything -- except, perhaps, for the viewpoints on what is motivating Oleanna's vividly drawn individuals to do what they do.

Far be it from me to give anything else away here. So instead, let's just say I found myself so incredibly infuriated and outraged with one of the Oleanna’s two characters, from my front-row center seat no less, that I was finding myself suppressing something I never felt before in all my years of theatregoing: a most unusual and downright primal urge to bound the stage and take down the parasitical character directly in front of me. That in and of itself makes this Oleanna a triumph. But it's also quite a surprise this production doesn’t employ bouncers to guard against less stable audience members!

In the days since seeing the play, I have found myself replaying all of Mamet’s words over and over again in my mind, parsing the potentially incendiary statements from both John and Carol long after I left the Golden Theatre. Can it really be that these very same lines, if delivered even the slightest bit differently in nuance or intonation, could easily be construed another way? The answer is absolutely yes.

Given opposing points of view I've heard from other performances, I have to wonder whether Hughes et al are indeed changing it up each night so as to keep future audiences guessing or mulling over or -- much more probable -- arguing over the same questions.

What is truly remarkable about Oleanna is that Mamet has taken a highly flammable topic such a sexual harassment and turned it on its head. Surely, most among us can agree without hesitation that such acts are vile and reprehensible.

Through Oleanna, Mamet practically demands you to rethink what you already feel is right and just-- the question is whether you'll second guess yourself during the show or after. And that Mamet commands this kind of sway is all the more remarkable given that he originally mounted this work in the heady wake of the infamous confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in which Anita Hill’s devastating testimony nearly served as the modern-day lynchpin in defeating his appointment.

Be forewarned, while parallels can easily be drawn with that notorious episode in our history, your conclusions may be turned inside out after sitting through Oleanna. And that's the payback you may have been waiting for. Or maybe not.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 12 October, 2009, Blogger Vance said...

I studied this in High School and our teacher brought us to see a production that happened to be playing in Toronto at the time and I remember it being such a hotbed for discussion! Glad to see the new Broadway version is living up to Mamet's words!

At 14 October, 2009, Blogger poz pig said...

I got to see Julia Stiles do this with Aaron Eckhart on the West End a couple of years ago. Both were a revelation to me - I thought the play was creaky and overly generous towards the male character, but the actors were superb

At 14 October, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Although Julia Stiles was in both the London production and the current Broadway incarnation, the director is different. That leads me to wonder how much has changed in the way the material is presented.


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